Kristof Vanfleteren, Paul Thiers and Davy Demuynck (ION, Waregem): “Our ambition? To be new-school.”

After a quick rise to prominence, Waregem-based project developer ION has already become a force to be reckoned with. Founded only in 2011, it already has an office with forty employees, an impressive reference list in Flanders, and about 1 billion euros’ worth of projects in the pipeline.

The three men at the helm, Paul Thiers, Kristof Vanfleteren and Davy Demuynck, claim their company is “a property business unlike any other”.

ION was founded in 2011 by two property specialists and two investors (one of whom is still active today) with an industrial past. Would you agree this seems a strange combination at first sight?

Davy Demuynck (laughs): It gets even stranger. I have a degree in physical education.

Kristof Vanfleteren: And I’m a civil engineer rather than an architect, which makes me an odd man out in our sector, too.

And yet you both ended up in the property sector?

Davy Demuynck: It’s all because of our first jobs and our first professional experience. I worked for Fernand Huts for several years, then for Bart Verhaeghe (Eurinpro/Goodman) and later at Allfin – which is now Immobel, run by Marnix Galle, husband to Michèle Sioen. I learned all the tricks of the trade there. The same goes for Kristof: we met while working for Bart Verhaeghe, and he also ended up at Allfin. Being able to learn the ropes from people like Marnix Galle and Bart Verhaeghe, that’s a true privilege.

But you dreamt of starting your own company?

Davy Demuynck and Kristof Vanfleteren: Absolutely. That was always the dream.

Especially in the property sector, you need capital to make your dreams come true. How did that go?

Davy Demuynck: Kristof and I got to know each other at Eurinpro and later at Allfin. We shared a passion for entrepreneurship, and wanted to build a great company from scratch. We both knew Paul Thiers, who had once said: ‘If you need me, call me.’ In addition to the much-needed starting capital, Paul’s many years of experience have also been a great source of support to Kristof and myself.

Paul Thiers: My natural habitat was the industrial sector; I worked at Unilin. I had always secretly dreamt of getting into the property sector. And with these ambitious young go-getters, I felt that we were on the same page. We all agreed that we wanted to approach property management differently than everybody else, and with the utmost professionality. I immediately knew that I had found the right partners to realise my dream in Davy and Kristof.

Did you draft an extensive business plan to make this entrepreneurial dream come true? Or did you go with your gut feeling?

Kristof Vanfleteren: Obviously, we didn’t rush into anything. We had endless discussions on how to build a company that could make the difference in the long term. Of course, there is a business plan, but I wouldn’t say that we blindly adhere to it every day. The most important thing for all three of us is that we want to create added value at every level. In the market itself, but also in all parts of the company. Doing things “differently” has always been our vision, and we have been resolutely going down this path for six years now. Above all, ION wants to be more than just the sum of its projects.

Davy Demuynck: A business plan is one thing, but never everything. This is especially true in the property business, where things are evolving at an incredibly fast pace. The question we always ask ourselves is: ‘What will be the next big thing?’ That’s how we want to make a difference. And judging by market trends, I would say right now we are succeeding admirably in this regard.

How do you manage to stand out in such a competitive market?

Kristof Vanfleteren: First of all, you have to be highly reactive and flexible. When we started out, unlike other developers at that time, our focus was on student housing. Leuven was our first playground, so to speak. We’ve since built a thousand modern student flats there. Then we changed gears to assisted living apartments, and to homes for small and medium-sized investors. At the moment, we are mainly active in two domains: the realization of complex, mixed-use, inner-city urban renewal projects on the one hand, and commercial property (offices, hotels, logistics buildings and infrastructure projects) on the other. So, in just six years since the start, we’ve covered a broad spectrum. And something new is already coming our way: Build-to-Suit. This is a new concept where we are asked by companies to find building plots at suitable locations for their projects (offices, shops, logistics centres), which we then tailor to their needs. Once we’ve found a suitable location, we take care of the entire building process: the design, obtaining the necessary permits, construction, as well as legal and fiscal structures. Should the customer so desire, we can also take care of financing (rental solutions, leasing formulas, …). This is all not as straightforward as you might think. What you need to be is, in a word, agile. You need the ability to move very swiftly and effectively in order to achieve good results.

Paul Thiers: The time when all that mattered was “location, location, location” is now definitely behind us.

Davy Demuynck: Flexibility is our greatest motivation. In this business, for any given location, you have to offer the right product at the right price, and at the right time. I think we’ve proved by now that we’ve mastered this skill. After all, we have a different offer on our plate every day. However, theoretical turnover is only nice on paper. We strive for added value in actual practice.

Today ION has 1 billion euros’ worth of projects in the pipeline. This requires more capital than what you need to start a business. How do you handle this need for capital?

Davy Demuynck: At ION, we deliver large-scale projects from the fund structures we manage. We have completed our first major round of financing, amounting to 30 million euros, with wealthy entrepreneurs participating indirectly in the developments we realize. When striving for strong growth with double-digit returns, as we do, this is the only way. Soon we will be launching a second capital round, with a target of some 70 million euros.

Kristof Vanfleteren: This is necessary because we also gradually want to become active in neighbouring countries (France, the Netherlands) as interesting opportunities present themselves. And there are plenty.

Paul Thiers: Let it be clear that unlike many start-ups, we don’t want to wait to bring out the big guns.

There are two ways to grow: endogenously, or externally through acquisitions or partnerships. Which do you prefer?

Davy Demuynck: We want to be new-school in every way, not old-school. So, this means we are open to partnerships. Thirty percent of all our projects is realized through joint ventures. More and more third parties are also consulting us for co-creation.

Paul Thiers: The time where everyone would fend for themselves is over – in other sectors as well.

According to the Confederation of Construction, it’s all about flats, flats and more flats now in the residential market, at the expense of house construction. How did this happen?

Kristof Vanfleteren: This is mainly because living in cities is on the rise again. People are seeking out beautiful, affordable and ecological places to live. It’s up to us to respond to that demand. On the Sint-Janslaan in Kortrijk (near the shopping centre ‘K in Kortrijk’) we have a project with 110 affordable flats, the large majority of which has already been sold. This proves that we are able to anticipate and fulfil demand.

Construction is booming like never before. Is there a risk of the market overheating?

Kristof Vanfleteren: I don’t think so, and the reason is simple: there will always arise new needs. The needs of five years ago have already changed, and in five or ten years people will want other things. That is the perpetuum mobile of project development.

Davy Demuynck: We are also heading for a market with more tenants than owners in the near future, or at least that’s my perception. The reason, I think, is quite simple: houses are becoming more expensive. Banks want more guarantees and more down payment from new owners, but these property buyers’ parents need their money for themselves if they want to live comfortably. This is triggering a societal switch, which will not remain without consequences. When the effects of population ageing truly become apparent, that’s when you’ll see a shift in the property market.

To an outsider, construction seems much easier today than it used to be. It’s all just rectangular Lego boxes now, right? What has become of construction companies like De Coene and their refined finishing techniques?

Kristof Vanfleteren: Let’s be realistic. Today’s building techniques and materials already come with a hefty price tag. It is always a struggle to meet the budget, for all parties involved (both the client and the project developer).

Davy Demuynck: And yet, we want to stand out from the crowd in this regard. I don’t think there are many project developers who work with the most highly regarded architects from Norway (the Snohetta project in Roeselare) or Italy (the C + S project in Tervuren). We do.

Paul Thiers: Whenever there’s room to invest in originality and quality, ION will jump at the chance. Our list of references is our best calling card. Take the Panquin project in Tervuren, for example. Top-of-the-line apartments, impeccably finished, located right next to a fully renovated eighteenth-century barracks. The façade is one thing, but the finish is at least as important.

Sustainability is the buzzword in construction, as if nobody was concerned with the environment in the past?

Davy Demuynck: I have a bit of a different view. I think we’re only at the beginning of an ecological boom. In terms of CO2 emissions, heat grids and collective heating plants, there’s a veritable revolution coming.

Kristof Vanfleteren: This will not only involve sustainable energy solutions, but also the use of reusable materials. A good example is Waregem Business Park (opening in the spring of 2018), which we are currently building together with Govaert & Vanhoutte along the major road into the city. We’re actively trying to anticipate and deliver on the trends of tomorrow there, using techniques such as geothermics and LED lighting, while creating a pleasant and sustainable work environment for everyone who will be working there. And when determining the structural composition of our projects, we take possible alternative uses into account. In other words, we ensure that buildings can be used for different purposes without significant structural adjustments.

Is it easy for you to attract the right people to work with? And how do you make sure employees actively engage with ION’s corporate identity?

Kristof Vanfleteren: We specifically target highly-educated dynamic young people who aspire to deliver top quality, in an equally top-quality environment. We offer them a four-leaf clover, and focus on four important values in everything we do. One: they get the opportunity to practise intrapreneurship. Two: we swear by ‘no nonsense’, meaning: come as you are, just be yourself. Three: there is no place here for solo players, as teamwork is part of our DNA. Four: in everything we do, we strive to be “best-in-class”.

Just to wrap things up: is it a coincidence that everyone in the group photo on your website is dressed in white? And today as well, the three of you are in white shirts for this interview.

Davy Demuynck: If you’re asking whether we have a dress code, then the answer is a simple no. Everyone wears what they want, and ties are a thing of the past. But white looks good, doesn’t it?

(Karel Cambien – Photos: Dries Decorte)

Source: Voka Ondernemers West-Vlaanderen


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